Prior to Gutenberg, there was very little incentive for the vast majority of Europeans to develop any type of literacy skills. The only ways that reading material could be widely produced would be by carving it into wood blocks (use your imagination to think about what an effort it would have been to carve an entire bible out of wood blocks made of backwards letters) or by having monks copy out entire texts by hand. Because written material was so labour intensive, there was very little reading material that was even available!
Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg developed a system, as can be seen in the video to the right, that significantly simplified and sped the process of reproducing text efficiently. It could be argued that this was the most important invention of the Renaisance Era, as it allowed the works of other thinkers such as Machiavelli, Galileo, Luther and Copernicus to be spread throughout the world.
Movable Type - Johannes Gutenberg
The first printing press was created by the Chinese more than 1000 years ago. Monks would use it to create copies of Buddhist texts. The would carve the information that they wanted to share onto wood blocks, coat the blocks in ink and press them onto paper, or other surfaces. Over time, both in China and Korea, various individuals experimented with movable type, using both clay and wood characters. Likely because Chinese and Korean writing systems are very complex and made up of thousands of different characters, movable type failed to becoe wide spread at this time. As a result, the Chinese version of the printing press was mainly used for smaller documents rather than larger ones like books.
The Printing Press
Gutenberg revolutionized printing through his creation of a press in Central Europe (likely around Strasbourg in modern France) by using a mixture of lead, tin and antimony in order to create upper and lower case letters, punctuation marks and other necessary symbols for printing. In addition, he made an ink that was a mixture of linseed oil and soot that was a great improveent over the water-based ink used in China. The most famous product of his press is the famous Gutenberg Bible, pictured below. Gutenberg's invention quickly spread throughout Europe and then the world. By 1500 there were about 1,700 presses that had printed twenty million copies of 40,000 different books. No longer could there be a small literate elite with a monopoly on the world's learning - revolutionary ideas about religion, science, art and politics could now be read and interpreted by a substantially larger audience. The effect of the printing press can not be overstated. A&E Network went as far as to proclaim in 1999 that Gutenberg was the most important person of the millenium and Time-Life stated in 1997 that the press was the most important invention of the millenium. The traditional power structures of the Church and European monarchies would be drastically altered as a result and culture and knowledge were now on their way to the populations of the world.
One of 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles. This copy, one of eleven found in the United States (there are none in Canada), is property of the New York Public Library.